Composer at Work

56.-Welder-making-boilers-for-a-ship-Combustion-Engineering-Company.-Chattanooga-Tennessee-June-1942.-Reproduction-from-color-slide.-Photo-by-Alfred-T.-Palmer.-Prints-and-Photographs-Division-Library-of-CongressPosting will be very sparse in the next few weeks as I have to finish up my piece for The Crossing, Mass for the Day of St. Thomas Didymus. The piece sets portions of the Denise Levertov cycle of poems by that name, juxtaposed with the relevant portions of the Latin Mass Ordinary. The premiere is June 28 at The IceBox, part of the Crane Arts Center here in Philadelphia. Excuse me now while I pull down my visor and put my protective gloves back on…

“Meditation” concluded; upcoming:

– I just hit send on an e-mail with the PDFs for my brand-new Meditation on “Amazing Grace”, the short work for trumpet, contrabass and piano that I have written for Network for New Music’s April 4 concert. Terell Stafford and Mary Javian will join me for the premiere.

– Tonight is the concert for Mario Davidovsky’s 80th birthday at Merkin Hall in NYC. I’ll be there, and I anticipate a good number of colleagues will also want to attend to pay honor to  one of the great masters of our time.

– I have already begun sketching my new work for The Crossing, to be performed on a concert at The Icebox in Philadelphia on June 28. The piece will combine the Latin Ordinary of the Mass with poems by Denise Levertov inspired by the Mass texts. I’ve written numerous short motets over the years, but this will be my biggest a cappella piece by far.

The Icebox and The Crossing

I am happy to report that I have received a commission from the extraordinary chamber choir The Crossing, to compose a work to be premiered in the performance space called The Icebox, part of the Crane Arts Building here in Philadelphia.

Here is what I wrote about my proposed piece in my application to the commission competition:

In describing the Crane Icebox space, the competition guidelines refer to it as an “industrial cathedral.” This suggested to me a work that would reflect both the cathedral-like qualities of the space as well as the paradox inherent in the juxtaposition of those two terms. I propose a work that will set portions of the traditional Latin texts for the Mass alongside excerpts from Denise Levertov’s cycle of poems “Mass for the Day of St. Thomas Didymus”. Levertov’s choice to refer to the apostle known as “doubting Thomas” in her cycle’s title reflects the struggles of her own faith journey. “Industrial cathedral”, with its suggestion of human effort set alongside divine possibility strikes me as resonating with the figure of St. Thomas, whose story in the Gospel brings together both the skeptical and the faith-filled.

My proposed work will call for a small group of singers, perhaps three or four, to function as a schola, singing the traditional Latin Mass texts using a musical vocabulary that evokes plainchant but in a modern harmonic idiom; something ritualistic, austere, stylized. This schola will be placed at one side of the Icebox space, while the main body of the choir will be positioned at another side, and will sing the Levertov texts in a more dramatic and expansive idiom, though motivically related to the music for the Latin settings. The possibilities for choral antiphony are obvious. At times the groups will simply be contrasted, at other times they may be more dramatically juxtaposed, with the schola being heard amidst openings in the larger choral texture, or with the larger group providing a contemplative sonic space in which the schola can perform its rituals.

I am very excited to be working on this. Although I have written a number of short motets (and am presently trying to finish another one for a January premiere at Emmanuel Church), this piece is the biggest unaccompanied choral work I will have attempted. The premiere will be June 28, 2014.

Fire-Memory/River-Memory in the chapel and in the studio

The column at right notes that I am working on mapping edits for the recordings the 21st Century Consort made of four of my vocal pieces, but recently I have been involved in another CD project as well. I just finished going through recordings from a performance of a piece I wrote for chorus and orchestra on a commission from the Mendelssohn Club of Philadelphia, Fire-Memory/River-Memory. Here is my program note on the piece:

Fire-Memory/River-Memory, commissioned by the Mendelssohn Club of Philadelphia, is my fourth and largest composition on the poetry of Denise Levertov.  The two poems I have selected contrast in tone, but are unified, as my title suggests, through their shared concern with memory.

The first poem not only memorializes the victims of war, and laments the loss of their traces, but speaks of acts of memory rendered impossible by war. In this sense, the line “maybe fathers told their sons old tales” becomes the emotional center of the text: for a moment, remembrance was possible. In my setting, I have mostly assigned the poet’s questions about the people of Vietnam to the men of the chorus, while the bitter and elegaic answers are principally sung by the women.  Levertov was writing at the height of the Vietnam War, but her powerful images transcend the historical moment of the poem’s origin.

The second poem reflects Levertov’s love of nature and concern with the spiritual realities. Here memory is a memory of the divine, as embodied in the creation. The poem’s opening words are repeated at the end of the piece, turning them into an imperative, challenging us all to acts of mindful remembrance.

This is the first time a live performance of one of my pieces will be used for a commercial CD release. The performance was in the cavernous chapel at Girard College, (see at left) and the highly resonant acoustic made for a grand, if not very clear or well-balanced sound. I will be working with Mendelssohn Club director Alan Harler and engineer Joe Hannigan to mix the multiply miked recording, hopefully bringing the various elements of the piece into better balance. A run-thru was recorded, but the performance was so good, I am not sure much patching will be necessary. I am grateful to Alan and the Mendelssohn Club for bringing the piece to life. It will be great to have a document of the work. More details on the CD will be coming.